By Charlotte Bonner-Evans, Mentoring Partnership Manager

Four people of mixed races and gender sat talking animatedly around a table

Researchers and innovators face many distinct challenges, stemming from research projects, managing interdisciplinary teams, working with people across different organisational cultures, not to mention how busy everyone is, and the imposter syndrome that convinces us everyone knows more than we do! These themes are commonly identified by members of this network as shared challenges. Peers are uniquely able to relate to our context and experiences, offering understanding, support, and advice as a result. This is why we have designed a bespoke peer-led programme for the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network.

Peer group mentoring allows you to share your thoughts, experiences, and to collaborate with your peers. Through working with your peers, you can not only realise the value of discussing issues with those who are facing similar experiences, but also how much you can support others too. Peer group mentoring is based on the evidence that the value of mentoring is reciprocal, allowing space for multiple ideas and views to be shared, discussing problems, and reflecting on experiences (Heikkinen et al., 2020).

Knowing that peer support is available and that you are not in competition with others but instead working towards shared goals, helps to develop ‘meaningful interactions and a sense of relatedness’ (Baik et al., 2017 p. 18). This is an important networking intention in the wake of increased feelings of isolation and loneliness as a result of the pandemic. Moreover, the expectation for interdisciplinary working is increasing for researchers and innovators and finding common ground across disciplines is important.

In a blog for this Network, ‘Building a repertoire beyond advice’, our Mentoring Consultant, Dr Kay Guccione, emphasised that context and experience are important in how we resolve problems and plan our development. Working in peer mentoring groups allows you to work on shared challenges and experiences with others who are working in similar contexts.

The benefits of peer group mentoring include:

  • a space for sharing and reflection
  • problem solving
  • empowerment to take action
  • strengthening of professional identity
  • motivation and well-being.

Peer Perspectives, the Network’s peer group mentoring offer facilitated by subject area experts, is all about sharing personal experiences, solving genuine problems and answering questions alongside your peers, and constructing communities of Fellows engaged in common interests. In an environment with your peers and an expert facilitator in the subject, opportunities for development of yourself and others are rich.

Peer Perspectives takes place in just two meetings. In the first you set yourself some small actions and support your peers to do the same. Planning the second meeting date provides a timeframe for you to take action, as you meet again to review progress and report back on how it went.

Share experiences and challenges with your peers, you will find that they understand and have experienced something similar! (Huizing R.L., 2012)

Register to take part in Peer Perspectives

By Dr Kay Guccione, Head of Researcher Development at the University of Glasgow, and FLF+ Network Mentoring Specialist.

This blog is part of a series written for our FLF+ Network Leadership Mentors, and is provided open access so that it can be used by anyone who is interested in improving their feedback skills. I draw my examples in this post from across the different mentoring programmes I’ve worked on, but you will recognise that these ideas also apply to personal tutoring, doctoral and masters supervision too, as well as to line management.

382db7_99640ae73da344459ec142a631d48a0d~mv2

Is your feedback missing the mark? 

I have been selected as ‘Reviewer of the Year’ by a handful of journals, for giving developmental feedback, and it’s fair to say I’m very proud of this recognition. I am pleased to be recognised in this way, because giving feedback that helps people develop is a core competency of being a good teacher, academic, and mentor. Being a good mentor, and helping others to engage with mentoring techniques, is something I’ve been an advocate for in my professional life.

Disclosure though, I cribbed my feedback skills from a tutor on my Coaching and Mentoring MAEd – the superbly skilled Rose Schofield, a grand dame of feedback. Part of my learning with Rose over the years, as her student, and then as her colleague teaching on the MA Educational Leadership, was to understand what it was about her feedback that motivated people to want to do better. Rose’s feedback to me made me want to listen, think, and to evaluate and improve my work, all without her having to ever point out to me ‘what could be better’. She helped me to see for myself that improvement of my thinking, writing, and career choices was possible. She did this by asking me questions, and by choosing those questions carefully, selecting ones that I myself wanted to know the answer to.

I run regular workshops now, for lots of different institutions and businesses that support staff to add mentoring and coaching techniques to their teaching, management, supervision and leadership repertoires. One discussion I always like to let run, and to help people explore, is how to give feedback that the recipients will actually hear, analyse, and respond to.

How to give feedback that the recipients will actually hear, analyse, and respond to

Giving feedback that acknowledges areas for improvement, and that doesn’t cause the receiver to feel ashamed, close down, clam up, be upset, get defensive or start an argument, is difficult. This is because effective feedback is dependent on more than the structure or mechanism you apply — the relationship between giver and receiver really matters. Additionally, their relationship to the work, career, behaviour or decision you are critiquing, will impact on how the feedback is heard and processed.

There is widespread usage now of a formulaic ‘sandwich’ approach to giving balanced feedback (Whitman & Schwenk, 1974) that goes: ‘good bit, critical bit, good bit’. This formula for feedback isn’t as effective as we are led to believe and there are a number of criticisms of it available in the literature. At the time of publishing, it did a great service to medical education, but has become outdated for use today.

The sandwich method has lost effectiveness because the recipient (a) knows what you’re doing, and so (b) dismisses the positive bits and still feels defensive about the negative bits. This is because using a formula can seem generic, disingenuous, or inauthentic, and we all know of the temptation to write the criticism first and then add in positive ‘filler’ to cushion the blow.

This method can also be dismissed, and even provoke anger, in cases where the critical part is so out of line with how the recipient sees themself, that they feel there must be some mistake. Haven’t we all received feedback that jars with our self-image and thought, ‘You clearly don’t even know me or my work!’

So, if it’s not ‘balance’ that makes feedback effective – what is it?

Below are some concepts related to the giving of feedback for you to think about. This isn’t a ‘how to’ model because there’s not one right way that works every time. Not all ideas will be relevant to every situation, or every person. All that’s required of you, is for you to think about these ideas, think about your feedback, and notice where these suggestions could or wouldn’t work for you.

Consider as you read each idea below, that as mentors we intend to stay with the idea of ‘person centred development’. The key to giving feedback that supports thinking, learning, and motivates action, is to make the feedback about the recipient. Not generic, and not about ourselves.

To deliver this personalised feedback in a way that does not provide too big a challenge to the recipient’s own view of themselves we must:

Understand that relationship, rapport and alliance matters.  Most of us are more inclined to hear a difficult truth from a trusted colleague, one whom we feel has got to know us and who has got our back, than we are to hear it from someone we already feel tense around, or whose opinion we don’t particularly value.

Play the ‘long game’ of feedback. Does it matter more to ‘be right, right now’ or is it more important to build a productive partnership that will weather difficulties, and where honest conversations can happen? Ask yourself: do you really need to pick them up on that typo? Must you leap in and correct them? Are you helping them to learn or are you ‘showing what you know’? Are they doing things wrong, or are they doing it in a different way to how you would?

Ask don’t tell.  Before giving your opinion, why not ask your mentee or colleague how things went/how things are going, and what they think? For example, “Well done on getting [X] done/drafted, how did it go? Are you happy with it? Did you find it straightforward? Was there anything more taxing/complicated you had to deal with? Is there anything further you’d like to improve about it? Do you have any questions about it?”

Let go of values-based judgements. If a colleague or mentee’s work contains typos or mistakes, or is otherwise not up to your own standard, it’s not very likely that mistakes were made in order to directly offend you, or as a mark of disrespect. Consider whether you were clear about the standards you expect? If you’re feeling angry, what are you really angry about? What does the anger relate to? Who are you angry with? How are your anger levels generally? It may be that this perceived slight, or lack of care, is a further irritant in a relationship that’s already not working well. Address the cause, not the symptom.

Reject passive aggressive responses, for example ‘hinting’.  Good feedback is built on open and honest conversations. Say what you mean and mean what you say – take a look at this article on how to spot passive aggressive behaviour. If you need to practice getting out of passive aggressive habits, and communicate more honestly, imagine your response will be publicly available – does that change how you will reply?

Be culturally aware.  Here’s an article helping you think through your communication habits if you are working with people from different organisational and educational cultures, and diverse nationalities. The ‘British culture translation’ guide might make you smile. It has an application broader than EU translation and works both ways too.

Check the power privilege.  What might seem flippant, harmless or even funny between peers who know each other well, may come across as threatening to people who we are leading, managing or mentoring. This can be exacerbated if they are new to the task or workplace, are feeling a bit overwhelmed with workload, are on a steep learning curve, or are otherwise a feeling insecure about the work or performance they are getting feedback on.

Know what workplace bullying looks like. Keep an eye on yourself and others around you. Although I know I don’t need to preach to readers of this post about not using bullying as a feedback technique, there are those who feel they can get away with writing off their bullying behaviour as ‘just normal critical appraisal’. Check these guides to find out what bullying at work looks like - have you seen any of these? – I have definitely seen most of them in my time working in and with different universities. Rudeness and undermining behaviour isn’t just unpleasant in itself, it reduces motivation, engagement with and ownership of work, physical and mental health (see this study on workplace rudeness), and ultimately leads to isolation, low productivity, and delay.

Be specific about what you want to see. Have a little laugh at this comedic example of poor feedback. And if you find you’re giving feedback like this, why not just do it better? Define what ‘good’ looks like through your feedback, for example on the elements and style of scholarly writing.

Criticise with kindness.“Let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” – Arthur Martine.  Follow rules 1, 2, and 3 of intelligent critical commentary before offering your rebuttal. It transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your feedback, which in turn helps advance the discussion.

Use higher logical forms of disagreement. If you want to disagree, no problem. Just keep it about the subject of the disagreement, and keep away from the base of this hierarchy. Don’t troll your colleagues.

Try using ‘AND’ instead of ‘BUT’. You can easily negate good will by adding a ‘but’ after a positive statement. Try using ‘and’ instead. “You’re doing a great job already, and if you tried out one or two of these ideas, you could really become a connoisseur of feedback”. Remember that saying ‘however’ is just a fancy way of saying ‘but’. And saying ‘on the other hand’ is just a metaphorical way of saying ‘but’.

Try using ‘WHAT’ instead of ‘WHY’. Asking ‘why’ can (a) provoke defensiveness and make people feel the need to justify themselves with long winded accounts of everything they have on their plate right now, for example “Why didn’t you manage to get that done?” and (b) asking ‘why’ can send people spiralling backwards into the history of similar times they were stuck or frustrated and encourage self-blame. To keep ears open and minds solution-focused, it’s better to ask, “What prevented you from getting that done?” Because if we can define the ‘what’, we can plan around the ‘what’, and solve the problem.

Not shirk the difficult conversation. Sometimes we all have to speak an honest truth about someone’s habits, style or behaviour at work, and the impact it has on us. Things don’t get better on their own. Whatever difficult thing you have to say to your colleague(s), planning your conversation will help you clarify and articulate your thoughts and your approach. Download a difficult conversation planning tool I made here

As always, if these ideas are useful, then please use them, adapt them and share them as you wish. If they are not useful, no worries. Remember that you don’t have to do all of the above, choose the right things for you. If you do try out some of these ideas, your feedback is always welcome.

By Dr Kay Guccione, Head of Researcher Development at the University of Glasgow, and FLF+ Network Mentoring Specialist.

This blog is part of a series written for our FLF+ Network Leadership Mentors, and is provided open access so that it can be used by anyone who is interested in improving how they ask coaching questions. I draw my examples in this post from across the different mentoring programmes I’ve worked on, but you will recognise that these ideas also apply to personal tutoring, doctoral and masters supervision too, as well as to line management.

382db7_d97ddb43dcb047189eeaf766d0310e2c~mv2

I have been enjoying working with a range of different new mentors, on various schemes, in recent weeks. Part of their orientation to mentoring practice is introducing them to a facilitative coaching style and, as I wrote about in my earlier blog post, a ‘repertoire beyond advice’. This enables them to work with a diverse range of mentees, with a range of career backgrounds and development goals. It also allows them to bring a depth to their practice beyond a superficial advisory role.

New mentors who are trying on the coaching style and trying to avoid giving advice as a default option, often ask me what coaching questions they should ask their mentees. I could define ‘a good question’ in many ways from ‘non-incendiary’, to natural sounding, to incisive, to transformational, but what I understand these novice mentors to mean is ‘what is a helpful coaching question?’. Meaning, what could they ask, that will help their mentee to reflect and learn?

Coaching and mentoring disciplines stem from a learner-centred educational philosophy which aims to develop learner autonomy and independence by putting responsibility for the learning path and decisions, into the mentee’s hands. What this looks like in practice is the mentor sitting back and allowing the mentee to drive the conversation, supporting them to reflect deeply, to think creatively and ultimately to choose their own way forward. It won’t surprise you then that my answer is that a good question to ask is the question that works for that person, at that time. However, all irritating hedging aside, I offer some general guidance below on constructing great coaching questions, with examples.

Setting the ground rules.  It’s still worth beginning by setting some focus for the coaching conversation, for example asking “How do you want to use the time together?”“What are you hoping this conversation will bring?” or “What specifically do you need from me today?”  Even brief ad hoc coaching conversations can have an impact, but this only happens if both parties are clear about the purpose the discussion.

Start at the beginning and take it from there.  For some mentees a simple “How are you?”  or ”How have you been getting along?” will set them off on a long and reflective retelling of recent experiences. It’s OK to keep them talking. Don’t feel that you have to interrupt with a question to be more ‘coach like’. Listen, and take in what they are saying, and ask clarifying questions as needed.

Keep questions ‘open’.  An open question is one that invites your mentee or coachee to give a considered answer, recount an event, or think out loud, in some way processing their experiences and making sense of them. It’s usually a question which doesn’t have a simple answer but requires some contemplation and evaluation of the matters at hand. As such, open questions spark reflection, and help them bring implicit thoughts or thought processes out into the open. Often, what mentees need is for you as the mentor to open the conversation, and they’ll talk it all out.

Keep the conversation flowing.  For others, perhaps mentees who are more skilled at mastering their own thoughts internally, more naturally reserved, or those who are more nervous or who are feeling a bit upset, “How are you?” will elicit the short response of “Fine.” and you will have to think again about how to open up the conversation. My own favourite choice in this situation is a question along the lines of “What have you enjoyed in your work recently?” or ”What have you had on your plate the last couple of weeks?”. You can keep the conversation rolling by using a drawing, mapping or other visual approach and this is particularly effective if stress or frustration make it difficult for your partner to convey their feelings in words. Coaching side-by-side, for example working together at a whiteboard, or going for a walk together or separately whilst chatting on the phone, can also reduce feelings of confrontation or embarrassment for your mentee, and allow them to talk more freely. Make sure your mentee knows you are not asking them a question for which they need to produce the ‘right answer’ this can help them to overcome a fear of saying the wrong thing, and so be willing to speculate out loud.

Let silence be.  All mentors have to practice feeling comfortable with allowing silence to be a regular part of the conversation. Silence between you may sometimes signal that it’s your turn to move the discussion forward (as in the example above). But often it will indicate that your mentee has had an idea, is thinking about a new insight, or is considering how best to phrase what they want to say. You can help them best in this case by waiting, or by using ”Keep going”, ”Go on”, or ”Say more about that’,  to encourage them to stay with the thought and follow it to its conclusion. It can take time to marshal a web of ideas in one’s head into a linear sentence. Don’t butt in on that thought process.

Beyond the conversation: supporting action and accountability.  I consider it an essential component of my own mentoring practice, to ask mentees at the end of the dialogue: ”What action(s) are you committing to, before our next session?” This helps translate ideas into reality and makes action more likely. This is because it gives your mentee impetus to identify the time and resources to complete the task they have set for themselves, and the deadline by which they want to have taken action. Further accountability can be encouraged by enquiring about the consequences of inaction, for example “What will happen if you don’t do this task?” and from a mentoring partnership perspective “What do you want me to say to you next time we meet if you don’t do this task?”

Questions for mentors to field test

Below is a list of generally applicable, or adaptable, questions for your consideration and tailoring. This is a menu of questions from which you can select those that appeal to you, rather than a structured process model. Feel free to try them out, and to adjust the language to suit your style.

  • What exciting things have you been doing since our last meeting?
  • What have you been able to make progress on since our last meeting?
  • What’s working well for you?
  • Are there any unknowns you have right now that are blocking you?
  • What’s on your to do list that you’re avoiding?
  • What would make it easier to tackle that thing?
  • What’s the first thing you’re going to do towards [objective] after this meeting?
  • When do you need to do it by?
  • Who could support you to succeed with this?
  • What does achieving [objective] mean for your progress?
  • What are your hopes for how [objective] will turn out?
  • What could arise to prevent [objective] from happening?
  • What’s the most important thing you need to get done at this point?
  • What’s on the horizon that you know you need to think about now?
  • What is pulling your attention, is that something you need to do right now?
  • What fun things have you done this month?
  • What do you find enjoyable about this work?
  • What’s prevented you from taking action on [objective]?
  • What would make it more likely you will take action on [objective]?
  • What [time/people/support] resources do you have that you’re not making best use of?
  • What are you doing that’s stopping you from being at your best?
  • What might you try instead? What else? And what else?
  • What can you do today that gets you one step closer to that [idea/aim/objective]?

The important thing about developing coaching questions as part of your mentoring repertoire, is to reflect on the approach you take, and the type of responses that your questions elicit from your mentee or coachee. Notice the effect you have on your partner’s thinking, and combine this with their feedback, to really understand what makes for an effective question.

By Dr Kay Guccione, Head of Researcher Development at the University of Glasgow, and FLF+ Network Mentoring Specialist.

This blog is part of a series written for our FLF+ Network Leadership Mentors, and is provided open access so that it can be used by anyone who is interested in improving their listening skills. I draw my examples in this post from across the different mentoring programmes I’ve worked on, but you will recognise that these ideas also apply to personal tutoring, doctoral and masters supervision too, as well as to line management.

382db7_d9f0df247fb746d9973bc1ecdf6c135f~mv2

Are you really listening, or are you thinking how to reply?

A common expectation for mentees is that they’ll be able to get answers to their questions by asking their mentor. Not a terrible assumption. A good mentoring partnership though, if fulfilling more than the bare minimum transaction, should not come across like a Q&A session where the mentor supplies the answer to the mentees queries.

You may have noticed that your mentees (or whomever you’re working to support or develop), will often come along to meet you for the first time, and adopt this model: either coming with a list of questions for you to answer, or none at all, but sitting down attentively to hear your oration about ‘what they should do.’

This is antithetic to the idea of mentoring as person-centred learning, as it makes the conversation all about you, the mentor; your advice, your wisdom, your opinion. The short time you have together is filled with tales of your experience, and any actions coming out of the meeting are then yours to own.

It’d be preposterous to say there should be no advice given, or stories shared, there’s a right time and place for advice within your mentoring practice. A good mentoring partnership offers more than that though. I wrote more here about the pros and cons of giving advice if you’re interested to know more.

The idea I want to focus on in this post is the idea of the role you can play as a ‘sounding board’. A sounding board is an acoustic device that is put in place to ensure the speaker’s voice is heard and as a metaphorical sounding board, you act as a listener who amplifies the learner’s voice, not your own. By listening to understand, not to reply, you support the mentee to think out loud, to externalise their thoughts, in order to support a sense-making process: This helps them to:

(1) articulate what they have experienced, how they have reacted to it, what they understand about it and what they learned form it; and then (2) to decide how to proceed and move forward.

Many of us often need to get complex intertwined thoughts out of our heads (and their associated feelings, off our chests) in order to make sense of our experiences. Once we have the chance to talk it out, and hear what we have said, we can start to understand what we think. The ‘giving advice’ model skips step 1, the important sense-making step, and offers a way forward that’s not based in the learner’s experience and preferences, but in yours.

Additionally, being listened to and getting things of our chest gives us emotional relief. Not being listened to because the mentor-is-talking-now, or being constantly interrupted with well-meaning advice, anecdotes, or related topics, does the opposite. It can be experienced as frustrating, invalidating, and disempowering, and perhaps ultimately as a waste of time.

Real listening also means you will retain more of what your mentee, (or colleague, student or team member) is telling you. Meaning that the frustration of repeated conversations or ‘I told you this last time’ can be avoided. Retaining information about people and their work helps you to make connections when opportunities arise. It also supports understanding and therefore trust building between you both, and makes for great working partnerships.

Listening to reply  is how we converse most of the time. Instead of actually paying attention to and really hearing what the other person is saying to us, we are inside our own head, thinking about what we want to say in response, that might help them.

When I teach workshops on the principles and practices of mentoring conversations, I give participants a practice run of just 10 min where I ask them to keep the mentee talking, and avoid jumping in, even if that means long pauses or awkward silences. I then ask the conversational partners how it went, and we unpick the impact of that act, on the quality of the conversation. Mentors will tend to feed back that they experienced the exercise as ‘hard work’ because it’s an ‘unfamiliar’ way of working. And that’s OK, practice makes perfect.

But let’s listen to the mentees, look what they say about the opportunity to sound out their thoughts in an uninterrupted way [data shared with the mentee’s consent]:

“When I got a chance to talk it out and vocalise the ludicrous situation I was in, I had to put all my jumbled thoughts into a coherent sentence, that means that I had to make it make sense as a story instead of, you know, turning it over and over in my mind, going back and forth over bits of the issue in my head. So, like, then I thought about what the story I was telling actually was, and it meant I came to understand what my own role in that story was, and it all became a lot clearer that what I need to do is go back to my colleague X, who I’m feeling weird about. The one that I had the, er, awkward conversation with. I have to do now, what I wanted the person in my story to do, it’s the obvious thing to do, so, and when I laid it all out clearly it was very obvious.”

“When I got to the end of describing the problem I’m having with the new module, I felt like I’d already made up my mind about what I could do, I talked round in a circle and through sorting the facts I became very determined all of a sudden to do that thing, I went right off to do it. All my mentor said, was things to reassure me, like ‘oh that makes sense to me’. What I was saying wasn’t nonsense, and my choice about what to do about it also made sense.”

“It turned out, when I got to really going into detail, not to be one issue but three different things that need sorting out. Now I’ve separated them. It’s funny because I came here saying I wanted to get advice, but when it looked like my mentor was going to give me some advice, I was like, hang on through, I need to finish this thought, because I think I just had an idea. I want to get that out before I hear the one you’re going to say. I didn’t want my thought to be interrupted cos I was on a roll. My mentor’s cool and did a great job but he can’t possibly, well, get to grips with how complicated this is for me, and how much it’s ground me down We only had just a 10 min chat so not his fault that he couldn’t get the complexity of the situation.”

‘Listening to understand’ and to support your mentee to understand what they think and feel, is a practice, and it takes practice. Your role is not to hear the question and then to provide the solution. Instead focus on keeping your mentees thinking and processing their thoughts through talking. Keep them talking until you start to understand their perspective. Your key mentor tools here are ‘summary’ and ‘paraphrase’ — different ways of reflecting back what your mentee has said to you. Summary, is to summarise in their own words. Paraphrase, is to give a short recap using your own phrasing of the situation. Either way you are reflecting their experience back to them, not jumping straight in with your own.

Listen past the words too; when they discuss their work, listen for excitement, be sensitive to their energy levels, and notice what they are not excited or energetic about. Offer an observation to keep them thinking and talking e.g. “When you talk about X you get really enthusiastic, is that right?” or “I notice that when you talk about Y your head went down, what’s happening there?” 

By thinking carefully about whether we are really listening, how we listen, and what the impact of our listening is, we can start to develop new skills in developing others. Try this out in your next mentoring meeting, supervision, or staff one-to-one.

By Dr Kay Guccione, Head of Researcher Development at the University of Glasgow, and FLF+ Network Mentoring Specialist.

Building a ‘repertoire beyond advice’This blog is part of a series written for our FLF+ Network Leadership Mentors, and is provided open access so that it can be used by anyone who is interested in improving how they mentor others.

My work in mentoring, and mentor development naturally covers ‘training’ in good mentoring practice. Actually, I prefer to say mentor ‘development’, because ‘training’ is too didactic a notion to be a good way of describing how I support new mentors to get to grips with the practices involved. Mentoring is in itself a facilitative, non-directive activity which I aim to teach by example, and through offering mentors choice about what they want to include in their toolkit. Structuring and delivering good quality developmental conversations for your mentee is a personal practice as well as a professional practice.

As with all types of leadership practice, there’s not a ‘right way’ to do mentoring, each mentor chooses their own approach, style and practices, and chooses how and when to apply them in different partnerships, situations and contexts. However, there are certain frameworks into which we fit these practice choices, and the framework for good practice in mentoring, is that we avoid ‘telling’ ‘instructing’ and ‘giving advice’ whenever there’s a better way to support our mentee to develop.

That said, advice can be great. Giving advice is almost always intended as a helpful behaviour, done with the best of intentions to support our mentees, colleagues, friends, and families, who present us with a problem. But is our advice always received as intended? It’s likely not, we have all witnessed the frustrations that unsolicited advice can provoke.

When we think of a mentoring session, it’s common to think of two people who sit down together, do some talking, and as a result of this conversation the more junior ‘mentee’ gets some advice, information or tips from the more senior ‘mentor’, and ‘is developed’. However, the idea that mentoring is equal to advising, can lead us to a superficial view of what mentoring involves. Using advice as a way to solve every problem, can be based in assumptions about what the aim of mentoring is, and what the mentee wants to get out of the conversation. Take this oversimplified mentoring process for example:

  1. mentee has a problem based on a knowledge gap,
  2. mentor uses their superior knowledge to solve the problem, by giving some advice,
  3. mentee’s problem is solved because they now possess that knowledge…

But does it always work like that? Are all problems just caused by a simple knowledge gap and fixed by knowing the right answer?

Are mentoring problems always solved with the right advice?

First, let’s ask, are mentoring conversations always about problems? Engaging with mentoring is not just ‘for problems’, but can be even more effective if it’s viewed as a proactive development activity ‘for planning’. Positioning the value of mentoring as an aide to planning, prevents mentoring becoming a reactive rollercoaster of just in time problem solving. And also prevents wasted opportunities, where the mentee says at the end of the programme “I didn’t get in touch with my mentor because a problem never came up.”

Where problems do occur, think also that it’s not very empowering to have to have someone solve your problem for you. In leaping in to solve the issue, we deny the mentee the chance to develop their own problem-solving skills. We undermine their own authority to be in control of their way forward.

And say there is a particular problem the mentee wants to solve, but there isn’t a simple ‘right answer’ to the problem? What if the mentor has no prior experience of the issue? What if the mentor’s advice comes from a different set of experiences and assumptions about how the world works? What if the mentor’s knowledge is out of date, or only applies in certain contexts? Their advice in any of these situations is likely to fall short of the intended mark, and to frustrate the mentee.

Importantly what if the ‘problem’ is not a knowledge gap at all, but a confidence gap, or a motivation gap, or a permission gap or something more complex like how to improve a challenging workplace relationship. These are things that the mentor can’t just ‘hand over’ to the mentee, and so we have to think differently about how to help.

Developing a ‘repertoire beyond advice’ is a must have for a good mentor.

So as mentors we try to resist jumping straight into advice-giving mode, and instead we listen in order to support our mentee to reflect and articulate the issues they face. We amplify their voice, help them think out loud, hear what they have to say, and make sense of their situation. We use coaching questions to prompt the mentee to think out loud, dig deeper, and self-evaluate. Developing a facilitative coaching approach means you can be helpful even if you’ve never experienced what your mentee needs to tackle, and it means you can help them learn how to problem solve for themselves, handing over control, and building confidence and empowerment.

Back in 2017 I ran focus groups with some experienced academic mentors, asking them, “In your experience what are the pros and cons of giving advice to your mentees?”

Here’s what they said…

(+) Pros of giving advice:

  • It’s quicker just to tell someone the answer, or tell them what to do.
  • You may go through all their own suggestions and they still end up taking your advice so it can feel a waste of time.
  • It shows someone you can relate to what they are experiencing.
  • It lets you as the mentor know that you have been helpful. It’s much easier to track whether you have done a good job if you had something tangible to hand over to the mentee.
  • It makes your mentee feel grateful to you, and value your time and wisdom.
  • If your mentee is stuck, it can unstick them, even if they reject it, they have to articulate why, it can get their creativity going again.
  • A mentee might expect advice and if they don’t get it they feel disappointed.*
  • Your suggestion might be insightful. It might be something outside your mentee’s awareness, or a genuine blind spot, or something totally new to them.
  • Your suggestion might stop your mentee from making a serious mistake, wasting their time or getting into a difficult situation.

(—) Cons of giving advice:

  • We don’t know as much about our mentee as they themselves do. We may make a diagnosis about what they need or should do based on very limited information.
  • Listening to your suggestion halts their thinking process. Thinking out loud is very powerful and you interrupt that process when you suggest a solution.
  • It creates a dependency-like relationship. If you solve a problem for them they come back to you next time there’s a new problem.
  • It’s disempowering to a person if you always know more than them, or always want to ‘one up’ their ideas.
  • A mentee will prioritise your advice over trusting themselves. As a mentor, you are the senior colleague so they feel obliged to take your advice, they feel they owe it to you.
  • A mentee in a complex situation can feel relieved that you’ve made the decision, and act without evaluating whether it’s really appropriate for them or not.
  • What if the advice doesn’t work? This can lead to blame, if you suggest a way forward, you always own it, you can get the credit, or the blame.
  • A mentee can get overwhelmed with good advice and feel like they have to put it all into practice before meeting with you again. You never see them again because they never complete the list.
  • We are all just more motivated to actually follow through and carry out ideas that are our own, we’re more likely to put them into practice.

Please take time to consider the reflections above, and see if you can spot them playing out in practice the next time you give advice, or choose not to.

To conclude, coaching those you aim to support rather than advising, is another string to your mentor bow. It means you don’t have to always know the right answer, and that you are supporting your mentee to build confidence, independence, and good problem-solving skills – not just solving the problem for them.

There is still always a right time for advice, usually when there is at least a semi-right answer and the issue is more straightforward. Good advice is given with permission, so help your mentees evaluate your suggestion though rather than just accepting it. Try adding “What can you take from my suggestion that would work for you?’ to the end of your piece of advice. Remind your mentee they aren’t obliged to take your advice too, and let them choose to adapt or reject it, if it doesn’t really work for them.

I hope you now feel more enabled to choose the right supportive approach for the right situation.

Developing a dynamic and diverse mentoring programme is our goal. Our priority is to serve the needs of the FLFs and Innovators who are part of the Network. Experienced in overseeing the development of mentoring schemes, our mentoring lead, Professor Claire Gorrara, envisions a mentoring scheme that is values-led and responsive to the needs of you, the Future Leaders Fellows and Innovators, during your time on the programme.

‘Mentoring is mentee-driven and matched to mentee goals, interests, values and aspirations.’

Professor Claire Gorrara
FLF Development Network, Research Culture Academic Lead

Our first port of call to develop the mentoring scheme was to obtain your feedback on what you wanted from mentoring during the March 2021 Research Encounter.

What does mentoring mean to you?

A wordcloud generated by FLFDN attendees at Research Encounters 2021
A wordcloud generated by FLFDN attendees at Research Encounters 2021

You are a varied community of researchers working across academia and industry and, as such, provided us with insights into a range of wants and needs that are feeding into the recruitment of mentors and the mentee-mentor matching process. You have told us that you are looking for mentors who will support and challenge you, and bring new and diverse perspectives on topics that include:

  • Experience outside your current field/industry;
  • Understanding others’ aims and values;
  • International experiences and perspectives
  • Guidance on strategic and long-term goals;
  • Insight into more senior careers;
  • Confidence and assertiveness;
  • Coaching on managing relationships and difficult conversations;
  • Opportunities for professional development and career planning;
  • Encouragement and provision of a safe place to articulate challenges and concerns;
  • Reflective feedback.

If you weren’t able to join the event, there is a recording in the video library on the FLF Development Network website – log in to access the Research Encounter Day 2 recording.

We have also been doing 30-minute Drop-in Sessions, with the next being on Monday 10th May. Here, you can provide us with your feedback on what you want from a mentor. Again, please log in and visit the Mentoring Drop-Session event page on the website to register to come along.

Inspired by the information you have shared with us, we continue to develop the mentee–mentor matching criteria with a values-led approach and your requirements at the forefront.

Reaching out to colleagues and associates, we have gathered lessons learnt on the experience of being a mentee and a mentor. We are looking to best practice from mentoring schemes across the UK, some of which colleagues from the FLF Development Network have been involved in developing and delivering. We will ensure our mentoring programme is personalised and agile, based on tried-and-tested pairing models pioneered by consortium partners. We are expanding the existing mentor pool with our own extensive, global contacts and will provide orientation sessions where you will meet your mentors.

Look out for more information on the mentoring scheme in the mentoring section of the website.

If you have any queries or questions on the mentoring scheme, please contact us: mentoring@flfdevnet.com.